Fresh brie melting on a fluffy croissant, black berets and striped shirts, cigarettes and haunting accordion music, we all have an image of this iconic city that has been shaped by art, film, and pop culture. Described in brush-strokes and words countless times, Paris is a million different things to a million different people. But what is the real Paris?
Is it the carnival of sex and sound portrayed in Baz Luhrman’s Moulin Rouge? The quirky and romantic world of Amelie? Or the angsty and brooding artist’s realm portrayed in many paintings from the great masters who made it their home?
Paris was the first foreign city I ever travelled to. After studying Art History at University, I arrived full of expectation and enamoured by the history and mythology of the “City of Light”.
However, as much as you build a destination up in your mind before you travel there, it is still a real place that is never the same as you imagine. Nevertheless, every amazing thing that I imagined I would do in Paris came true, and it was one of the best travelling experiences of my life and the first taste of a life of wanderlust.
I first fell in love with the idea of Paris, and then I fell in love with Paris itself.
Climate: Western European Oceanic – mild and moderately wet
Paris: A City Made for Wandering
Paris is the type of city that is magical to get lost in. Around each corner and meandering cobblestone street you will discover quirky shops, musty old bookstores, tiny secret hidden green spaces, and open marketplaces. The best way to discover this city is to simply set out from your accommodation with no plan in mind and begin wandering! Turn down streets randomly when something catches your eye, and sample cups of coffee or fresh pastries from the cafes and patisseries that you will stumble upon along your way.
Of course, there will be tourist experiences that you will want to have checked off during your trip to Paris, and there is nothing wrong with that. Just don’t forget to leave some room in your journey for aimless wandering. This is my favourite way of experiencing a new city, and I find that there is no better way to leave yourself open to spontaneity and to finding those little hidden treasures.
There are too many amazing things to see in Paris, and I could not even begin to list them in this post. Instead, go there for yourself and explore!
Don’t forget to take a map with you, so that you can find your way back once you have spend the day getting lost in the streets of Paris!
The Eiffel Tower
The subject of every second postcard that you will see on your Paris trip, the Eiffel Tower is the most obvious and cliché of Parisian landmarks. However, for this reason it is a must do. You just can’t go to Paris without seeing it!
La Tour Eiffel was constructed for the 1889 Exposition Universelle, marking the 100 year anniversary of the Revolution. Since then, over 200,000,000 people have visited the tower, making it the most-visited paid monument in the world. Popular opinion of the tower has been divided, with some saying that it is the city’s most important icon, and others saying that it is an ugly metal eyesore.
You can choose to take the elevator to the top, or hike up the stairs. I chose the more challenging stair route simply because the elevator cost money and I was travelling on a budget. Boy did my thighs burn after over 1,600 steps up to the top! However, the view was worth my wobbly legs and I took some amazing panoramic photos of gorgeous Paris.
However, the only strange thing about the view from the Eiffel Tower is that even though it is one of the best views in the city, you feel like it is missing something… something essential that everyone associates with Paris… hmm… Oh yeah! The structure you are standing on! How ironic.
Montmartre was my favourite part of Paris, and if you are an art geek like me it will probably be yours as well. Throughout the years, many great artists lived and worked in Montmartre, such as Salvador Dali, Claude Monet, Pablo Picasso, and Vincent Van Gogh. Tiny narrow cobblestone streets wind up the steep hills, lined by bohemian chic apartments and cafes bursting with character and charm.
My favourite walking tour company, Sandeman’s New Europe, do a walking tour of Montmartre that I would recommend. Their tours have young, enthusiastic guides and are a great chance to meet other travellers.
If you want to wander through Montmartre yourself, start at the infamous Moulin Rouge, the lusty cabaret nightclub that made the can-can sexy, and make your way slowly up the Butte (hill) de Montmartre, meandering along and wandering down side streets if you desire. On your way you might see the cafe where Amelie worked, the apartment of Vincent Van Gogh, or the studio of Pablo Picasso. When you finally reach the top of the hill, you will find the Sacre Coeur Basilica. This gorgeous white domed building is one of the most beautiful examples of architecture in Paris, and you can climb even further up the 234 spiralling steps up to the dome, which will give you an incredible 360 degree view of Paris. Unlike the last view, this one will include the legendary Eiffel Tower!
My favourite part about the Sacre Coeur was the wide expanse of steps coming down from the front of it. These steps are filled with people sitting and enjoying the view, and almost always some scruffy guy or girl with a guitar crooning out classic 90s pop hits like “Wonderwall” and “Halleluiah” Grab yourself a freshly prepared crepe, take a seat on the steps, sing along, and watch the sun go down over Paris. What a perfect moment!
The home of The Mona Lisa, the most reproduced artistic image ever, and many other incredible works of art. The Louvre is the world’s largest and most visited museum, with an incredible 8.5 million visitors in 2009. It is absolutely immense, so don’t try to see every piece of art. To put it in perspective, the museum has 35,000 works of art on display. If you looked at each piece of art for only 30 seconds, it would take 13 full days to see the entire art gallery. Instead, see the galleries that you are most interested in and take your time enjoying them.
Here’s a great money saving tip for art fans. If you are between the ages of 18-26 and you think you will visit The Louvre more than once during your stay in Paris it is definitely worth it to get a Carte de Louvre Jeunes. This is a one year pass that gives you unlimited admission to the museum and all temporary exhibitions without having to wait in line and only costs 15 Euro. Considering that a onetime entrance fee is 10 Euro, you will make this pass pay for itself even if you only visit twice. You also get a newsletter and special deals. Doing the Louvre in two or three short visits helps prevent you from getting overwhelmed!
Luncheon on the Grass
Paris is one of the most famous food cities in the world, and a trip there would not be complete without sampling some of the amazing cuisine at the award winning restaurants in this city. Save a big extra in your budget and treat yourself to at least one fancy meal in a Paris restaurant, and you are sure to have a culinary experience of a lifetime.
However, if your shoe-string travel budget doesn’t allow fine dining, don’t despair. The delicious tastes of Paris are well within your reach. For example, you can pick yourself up a freshly made crepe from one of the little stands along the street. These thin pancakes are made right in front of you, and watching the skilled chefs pour the batter directly onto the hot skillet and then deftly manoeuvre it around is fascinating to watch. Choose a savoury crepe filling such as egg, ham or cheese for a meal, or a sweet filling like chocolate, jam or nutella for dessert.
Another budget Paris meal is to simply hit the nearest supermarket or open-air market and grab yourself a fresh bauguette, a few olives, some scrumptious soft cheese, fresh fruit, or whatever else you fancy and eat it while lounging in the Jardins de Luxembourg, on the banks of the Seine, or some other beautiful picnic location.
It’s cheaper than a restaurant, and you can watch Paris go by as you enjoy your picnic in the fresh air.
Versailles on a Bike
While in Paris, it’s definitely worth it to take a day trip out to the Palace of Versailles. This incredibly ornate and over the top castle was built as a symbol of the Ancien Regime and will leave you in awe. It’s meticulously landscaped gardens stretch towards the horizon, and the palace itself contains room after room of velvet, gold, and precious artwork. The best way to experience Versailles is on a bike tour. I took one from Fat Tire Bike Tours and I had a fantastic time. You meet up at their location in Paris, and then take your bicycles on the RER train the short distance to Versailles. First you stop at the village market, where there is a huge selection of bread, cheese, wine, and other deliciousness that you can stuff in your backpack for later.
Once you get to the Palace Grounds, you are suddenly glad you are on a bike. The gardens are so incredibly huge that there is no way that you could explore them all on foot in a day! The tour also stops for a picnic in a fantastic location overlooking the reflecting pool and the Palace itself where you can enjoy the treats you found at the market. One of the best things I did on my trip to Paris.
Other favourite Paris memories:
· Eating chocolate macaroons and drinking red wine on the Pont Des Arts with friends while sketching the reflection of the moon in the waters of the Seine.
· Riding the metro when randomly, a musician wanders into my metro car and starts playing accordion music. The cool Parisians ignored him, but I found it impossible not to smile.
· Discovering Shakespeare and Company.
· Taking a boat trip along the Seine.
· Walking through Pere Lachaise Cemetery and finding the grave of The Doors front man Jim Morrison.
I think it’s clear that Paris is one of my favourite cities, and definitely one of the World’s Coolest. Go there and have an adventure for yourself!